Sunday, October 5, 2014

Defining farming: it means what I choose it to mean

There’s a lot of discussion on Kaua`i and elsewhere about what constitutes agriculture, and whether it’s only farming if you’re growing food.

The discussion enters all kinds of arenas, from property taxation to seed research. 

If you’re growing things, but not growing food, do you still qualify for an agricultural dedication for tax purposes? Is a gentleman’s horse ranch not an agricultural enterprise unless you’re milking the mares? Should we use taxation to punish you if your crop doesn't end up in someone's belly?

If you try to define agriculture, ultimately it gets into the Alice Through the Looking Glass discussion: “It means what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” 

Still, there are some standards.

Breaking down the word agriculture, you get two Greek-Latin roots, meaning land and tilling. Nothing about food. (Interesting that the agri in agriculture and acre have the same Latin root—ager, for land or field.)

Breaking down the word farm, and you pass through Middle English, old German and French terms referring to both food farming and any land management that pays the rent. Ultimately in Latin there is a sense of food and feast, but also security—like something that provides you with the means for survival, or something you can use as collateral. (Farm and firm have the same Latin root, firma, meaning solid and to be relied on.)

Small farms in the American Midwest might grow corn and alfalfa to feed cattle, and they’d raise the cattle for milk and cheese, and perhaps tobacco for a cash crop, a vegetable garden, and a managed woodlot for firewood and for woodworking. As far as the farmer was concerned, it was all farming.

Trying to define agriculture too narrowly yields endless debate.

If food crops are farming, are fiber crops not? What about medicinal crops? What about energy crops (whether trees, or cane or switchgrass)?

Is raising livestock farming, and must we distinguish between a horse that pulls the plough and the cow that offers milk? If you’re raising sheep for meat, it’s farming, but if you’re raising the same sheep for wool it’s not?

And what of the cover crop that is tilled under to improve the soil? It doesn’t directly feed people, so it is not farming? But it supports the subsequent food crop, so maybe it is? Even dedicated food farmers need sometimes to grow non-food crops—cover crops, erosion control grassed areas, windbreaks—and sometimes need to leave a field fallow.

It is a slippery slope, and trying to define it too narrowly leads to trouble, as Lewis Carroll’s Alice found:

"I don't know what you mean by 'glory'," Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't—till I tell you.

This is not to say it’s impossible to make public policy of promoting food crops—just that it needs to be done very carefully.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2014

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

They also need to remember that ornamental floriculture and Nursery are also farming. Aesthetics farming to "say it with tropical flowers and landscaping are also working the soil to produce a crop. Thank you Jan for your insight!